New Canaan Now and Then: Mead Park

Near the Park Street entrance looking north

On April 12, 1915, Florence Heath Mead, wife of Benjamin P. Mead, donated “18 acres, more or less” to the city of New Canaan. There were a few stipulations: (1) that the property “shall be known as ‘Mead Memorial Park’; (2) that its only use could be that of a park; (3) portions of the fleet could only be sold to the New Haven & Hartford Railroad Company or its successors; and (4) that $300 be set aside for maintenance and improvements.

Benjamin Mead had been a very active member of the city. He first moved to New Canaan in 1873 to manage a general store located on Main Street where the Chase Bank is located today. He later became city clerk, first elected official, legislator, senator, and state comptroller. He apparently never lost an election. He died in 1913.

Seeking to commemorate him, Mead’s friends suggested donating land that Benjamin had purchased in 1895 from the Rockwells. A former cranberry bog and cornfield, it was a gravel pit under Mead’s ownership. By 1915 the gravel had been excavated and local residents were using the land as a dumping ground. The proposed land donation caused an outcry in the city. A public meeting on the subject attracted some 350 residents. As attendees waited outside for the meeting to begin, they debated the pros and cons of accepting the donation, including the tax burden and the fact that the land would be “another sewer bed for a playground”. But despite these objections, the land donation was accepted by 136 votes to 110.

Not much was done with the park in the early years. The first goals were to build a ball diamond and a skating pond. The land was measured, but it wasn’t until 1920 before there was anything resembling a baseball diamond in the park. The skating pond was a much easier task, it seems. The small pond was cleared of bushes and trees, a small dam was erected, and there was some skating on the pond during the first winter.

During World War I, the park was virtually ignored. Brush filled the pond again and people started to use it again as a dumping ground.

Then in 1925, the park was threatened because Stamford High School decided it would no longer accept students from New Canaan. Without a secondary school of its own, New Canaan considered building a school in the park where the tennis courts are currently located. The proposal failed.

Today’s Mead Park was created during the Great Depression with funds from the Work Progress Administration. The pond was dredged and enlarged with two artificial islands that still exist. A children’s wading pool surrounded by a colonnade was added in the early 1930s. (The pool was filled in during World War II to create a victory garden and has never been uncovered.) The entrance arch, created by Harold Mead, was dedicated in the summer of 1935. Trees and shrubs were planted – an inventory made of the park from 1947 showed that there were 943 shrubs and 1 488 trees in the park. In total, the WPA and other federal programs spent about $100,000 to improve the park during the Depression.

In 1944, the Garden Club began planting the Gold Star Walk, a memorial to the 38 New Canaan residents who lost their lives serving in World War II. Over the years the boardwalk and bridges have been restored, most recently in 2017 by longtime resident Jim Bach. A bench honoring Bach and a bench honoring architect Laszlo Papp are also part of the park’s glory.

“New Canaan Now & Then” is featured in Partnership with the New Canaan Museum and Historical Society.

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